WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has twice scrambled fighter aircraft to protect American special operations forces and allies after Syrian government warplane attacks near the northeastern Syrian city of Hassakeh, officials said Friday.
Navy Capt. Jeff Davis said the United States has increased combat air patrols in that area and has warned Syria that America will defend coalition troops. He also said he believes this is the first time the US has scrambled aircraft in response to an incident like this involving Syrian government bombings.
Davis said a small number of US commandos were in the area Thursday training and advising Syrian Democratic Forces. The Syrian government strikes, he said, “did not directly impact our forces. They were nearby — close enough that it gives us great pause.”
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The US initially contacted the Russians, and Moscow denied responsibility for the bombings. The US relayed the warning to Syria through Russia because they are allied with the Syrian government in that country’s civil war.
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As The Christian Science Monitor’s Scott Peterson wrote this week, Russia recently took the unprecedented step of launching airstrikes from Iran:
For Russia’s part, its decision to use the Shahid Nojeh military airbase in western Iran underscores its calculation that bolstering its nearly year-long overt military intervention – which began dramatically with Russia airstrikes launched from a base in the Syrian coastal town of Latakia – can help tip the battlefield in Assad’s favor.
Saying the US will do what is needed to protect coalition forces, Davis added, “The Syrian regime would be well advised not to do things that would place them at risk.”
The US aircraft arrived as the two Syrian jets were leaving, Davis said, so the US had no radio contact with them. Efforts by Kurdish forces on the ground to contact the Syrian jets were unsuccessful, he said.
On Friday, US aircraft patrolling the area learned that Syrian jets were attempting to fly across the area and flew to meet them, a senior defense official said. The two US F-22 fighter jets got within a mile of the Syrian SU-24 aircraft and the Syrian jets saw them, then turned and left the area, the official said.
The US jets tried to contact the Syrian aircraft but there was no response, the official said. No weapons were fired but the presence of the coalition aircraft encouraged the Syrian aircraft to depart the airspace without incident, according to the official, who was not authorized the discuss the incident by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Syrian government forces have been bombing Kurdish-controlled portions of Hassakeh in recent days, and scores of residents have fled the city.
The additional US combat air patrols will monitor the situation and provide assistance to coalition forces if needed, but are not enforcing any kind of no-fly zone, Davis said.
President Barack Obama has authorized the deployment of up to 300 US special operations forces to Syria to work with the Syrian Democratic Forces. Small groups have routinely been moving in and out of the country to conduct the training and advising mission.